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Road tripping in a Ferrari 488 GTB: Worth the wait

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the Lamborghini Huracán, now also available with just rear-wheel drive. McLaren has its new 720S, the follow-up to the sublime 650S we were so smitten with.

But the 800-pound gorilla in the supercar market is Ferrari. It might not have been the first Italian company to stick a powerful engine behind the cockpit and wrap it all up in a pretty shape, but 70 years of heritage on and off the racetrack have imbued the brand with unimpeachable credentials. Now that we’ve finally had a chance to test its 488 GTB, a 661-horsepower (493kW) V8-powered sculpture on wheels, was it worth the wait?

After several attempts to secure a shiny 488 from Ferrari’s press fleet, the call finally came early in July. Ferrari had a car for us, with one catch: we had to drive it from its New Jersey headquarters to Lime Rock Park in Connecticut—which would be playing host to the IMSA WeatherTech Sportscar Championship—and back. It wasn’t a hard choice to make, even taking into account the midnight train we’d need to get back to DC. While at Lime Rock, we’d get a chance to spend some time with the Scuderia Corsa team, currently battling for the championship in IMSA’s GTD class—which you can read about in the accompanying article.

I must confess, I was a little apprehensive when we arrived in New Jersey. Driving someone else’s supercar is quite a responsibility. There’s the hefty price tag; a 488 GTB starts at $245,000, but once the options list got involved the car we drove tipped the scales at $346,739. Then there’s the nature of the drive. New York has some very scenic parkways, ideal you’d think for this kind of vehicle, with its flowing turns and good sight lines.

But last year’s Focus RS drive earned me a speeding ticket on one such road, an occasion that taught me two valuable lessons: a brightly colored car will stand out like a sore thumb to the highway patrol, and the parkway speed limits are much lower than you think (or the flow of traffic suggests).

And finally, there was the car itself. The 488 has received rave reviews, but often in the context of its behavior on track. For road trips, surely the front-engined California T, 812 Superfast, or FF would be more suitable; those cars are meant to eat the miles, and this one is meant to eat lap times. Denied a chance to strut its stuff on a circuit, could the mid-engined 488 shine while doing mundane things like drive along at the speed limit, carrying two people and their luggage in some degree of comfort?

As it turned out, I needn’t have been worried.

Buy the engine, get the car for free?

Back in the olden days, people used to say that Mr. Ferrari would sell you an engine and you’d get the rest of the car for free. While that hasn’t been the case for some time, let’s start with a look at that engine. It’s one that has caused a little controversy.

Ferrari is not immune to trends in the wider auto industry, particularly the move to downsized, forced-induction engines. Turbochargers currently offer the best route to a compact, powerful engine with acceptable economy and emissions characteristics, and so the old 458’s 4.4L, naturally aspirated V8—with its 9,000rpm red line and the mechanical symphony that resulted—is gone. In its place is a 90-degree, 3.9L twin-turbo V8 that’s closely related to the engine in the California T and, minus two cylinders, the

Enlarge / Why have art on your walls when you can have exhaust manifolds?
Elle Cayabyab Gitlin

So despite a loss of 597ml—1.2 pints here in America—the F154 CB (as it’s known) produces a lot more power than the engine it replaces: 660hp vs. 562hp (419kW). While statistics like the amount of power an engine makes for a given volume are usually meaningless outside of bench racing at the water cooler (or an Internet forum), the 448’s engine generates 170hp/L, something that Ferrari says makes it the highest specific output engine it has ever built. The 448 will probably keep that title until the company soups it up some more for the inevitable hardcore version that usually arrives halfway through a Ferrari supercar’s product cycle.

Going the forced-induction route has delivered even greater benefits with regard to the engine’s torque. With 561lb-ft (760Nm) available, the 488 has a hefty 40-percent more torque than the old car. What’s more, it makes all that torque at just 3,000rpm, a huge contrast to the old naturally aspirated V8, which needed 6,000rpm on the tachometer before it hit 398lb-ft (540Nm).

However, as with the California T, you only get the full amount of torque in seventh gear. In the lower gear ratios, the gearbox employs what Ferrari calls “Variable Torque Management.” Boost pressure is reduced, depending upon the selected gear, giving one torque curve for first through third, then steadily increasing curves in the next gears, topping out at about 516lb-ft (700Nm). (For a graphical illustration, check out this slide at Pistonheads.)

As we’ll see, Ferrari’s variable torque management is just one example of how the company uses electronics and algorithms to help the driver out, whether that be in outright performance or the more subjective qualities like drivability and predictable handling.

Listing image by Jonathan Gitlin

Jonathan Gitlin

Not just a pretty shape

Obviously, a supercar has to look good—these cars cost a small fortune and spend most of their lives barely breaking a sweat, so they ought to look as good standing still as they do at 200mph. The 488 GTB is an elegant car, an evolution of the 458’s shape with some visual callbacks to the old 308 GTB (those side-mounted air intakes) and Formula 1 racers (the front spoiler).

Back in the 20th century, Ferrari would usually farm out design work for new models, mainly to the Pininfarina design studio. These days, that’s all done in-house, under the watchful eye of Flavio Manzoni. Doing the design work at Maranello (where Ferrari’s Italian factory can be found) means being able to make full use of the company’s depth of aerodynamics expertise, learned in the shark tank that is Formula 1 racing. And you better believe that knowhow has been put to work on the 488.

Downforce has been increased by 50 percent over the 458: at 150mph, the body will generate 715lbs (324kg) to force it down onto the road surface. And yet it’s less draggy than the old car, too: a drag coefficient of 0.324 versus 0.33.

At the front of the 488, the air is managed in several different ways. That F1-style spoiler and the central “Aero Pillar” behind it do several things, channeling some air into the radiator but plenty more underneath the car’s body, where it’s used to generate that downforce. The front section of the underbody is flat, save for six curved fins roughly in line with the front tires that create vortices that accelerate the airflow on its way to the rear diffuser.

Too many performance cars these days adorn the undersides of their rear bumpers with black plastic channels and strakes that can’t possibly have any meaningful aero effect. Not so here. The 488’s massive rear diffuser channels the underbody air up and out, further contributing to the car’s aerodynamic grip. But the diffuser has another trick up its sleeve. Three flaps span the middle half of its width, normally lying flush up against the car. Above 60mph, if the car isn’t cornering or braking, these flaps are lowered by 17 degrees to reduce the diffuser’s efficiency, cutting drag and boosting top speed and fuel efficiency in the process. In a cute touch, when this happens you’ll see a little “DRS” icon appear on the dash in a tip of the hat to the drag reduction system used in F1.

Along the sides of the 488, air is sucked into those large tiered intakes just ahead of the rear wheels. Air from the lower tier is used to feed the air-to-air intercoolers. Air from the top tier goes to feed the engine, with some overflow routed out past the tail lights; this alters the turbulent wake at the rear, moving it farther away from the 488’s tail. Meanwhile, the airflow over the top of the car’s body is channeled through a narrow slot aft of the engine cover, underneath a fixed wing. This, too, is shaped to affect the wake exiting the diffuser.

It’s every bit as good to drive as you’ve heard

The 488 isn’t quite the antithesis of the semi-autonomous level 2 mile munchers we’ve been driving of late, but almost. At the same time, this is no analog expression of automotive purity either, and that’s not a bad thing. Where engineers at Audi, Volvo, Tesla, and so on are hard at work programming software that takes the strain out of driving en route to a fully autonomous future, Ferrari’s coders are working just as hard but with a different goal: to enhance your enjoyment behind the wheel.

There’s that Variable Torque Management system at work, which tweaks the turbos’ boost pressure to deliver a peakier, more naturally aspirated torque curve in the lower gears. Then there’s the Side Slip Control System 2, which manages the traction control, electronic differential, and the magnetorheological dampers based on inputs from sensors about the car. Together with the electronic stability control, these systems can be fine-tuned depending upon which mode you’re in and selected via the steering wheel-mounted manettino switch.

You get five different settings, each more permissive than the last. Wet is for inclement weather, and the most reined-in. Next is Sport, then Race, CT Off (which disables traction control), and finally ESC Off, which turns off all the safety nets. As we didn’t have a chance to try the 488 on track, we left those last two well enough alone but should note that by all accounts the car is slower on track when all the electronic nannies are given a day off. Race mode, despite the name, is perfectly manageable on the public road, particularly when the dampers have their “bumpy road” mode activated. It will allow you a little yaw under acceleration through a corner, but only within software-defined limits.

The first few miles with the 488 took some acclimation. With such quick steering—a hallmark of current Ferraris—and so much power on tap, the nagging voice in the back of your mind keeps reminding you of the consequences of getting it wrong. That feeling was compounded by having to negotiate the George Washington Bridge, complete with angry New York traffic. But my fears were unwarranted. For the most part, other drivers were aware of my presence on the road thanks to the loud red paint, and before long we were humming along the Taconic Parkway in seventh gear, the engine barely above idle as we kept pace with the flow of traffic.

One interesting observation: the engine note at part-throttle and lower down the rev range burbles like a large-capacity American V8, quite unlike the flat-crank scream I was expecting. On reflection, the 488’s sound was probably the car’s weakest aspect, droning a bit when cruising on the highway and never really lighting up the parts of the brain that go all tingly when exposed to a truly melodious engine.

Jonathan Gitlin

Everything gelled on the way home

The drive back to New Jersey is what really sold me on the car. It began to rain just as we left the picturesque racetrack. This wasn’t a torrential downpour the likes of which I had to contend with when ferrying the Huracán from New York to DC, rather something between a heavy drizzle and light rain. But with greasy road surfaces (and that nagging voice in the back of my mind), it was best to leave the 488 in Wet mode for most of the return journey.

The weather began to clear at roughly the same time as the road opened up into a three-lane highway, with its ever-changing mix of surfaces, including plenty of poor quality. The traffic was in clumps and clots. But under these conditions—barely breaking a sweat—the 488 excelled.

Ferrari’s move to turbocharged engines brought with it the fear that the new power units would come with the dreaded turbo lag. To a degree, this is an inescapable feature of (almost) all turbocharged engines; in order for the turbines to spin fast enough to force more air into the cylinders, there must be sufficient exhaust pressure to drive them. And building up that exhaust pressure takes a little time, since the engine has to be turning at a sufficiently high speed. Lag was a defining characteristic of turbocharged engines, particularly during the 1970s and 1980s as the technique became more common—you’d floor the accelerator and then wait a second or two before being hurled toward the horizon.

Ferrari say that the F154 engine is class-leading in terms of response, and that, in third gear at 2,000rpm, it takes just 0.8 seconds to respond to a throttle input. The turbochargers’ compressor wheels are made of a titanium-aluminum alloy that the carmaker says has a low inertia, and the length of the pipework has been optimized to shorten the gas’ journey as much as possible. In practice, this seems to have worked well; we never felt that the car was pausing between a throttle input before accelerating.

You can also monitor how the turbos are doing with one of the multifunction displays, which can show a graphical representation of turbo responsiveness, efficiency, or boost. Looking at the first of those, you notice that it changes depending upon the gear you’re in; 30-percent turbo responsiveness in seventh gear suddenly becomes 80 percent if you drop the car down into third.

Needless to say, the 488’s performance is bonkers. Zero to 60mph takes 2.9 seconds. Zero to 124mph (200km/h) takes 8.3 seconds, which is faster still than McLaren’s 650S, the car that Ferrari had to beat. Given a long enough road, top speed is above 205mph (330km/h).

Even at 70mph—just over a third of the car’s top speed—it felt alive. The quick steering and dampers disguise the Ferrari’s 3,404lb (1,544kg) mass, allowing the car to change direction almost effortlessly. My earlier fears that it would be ill-suited to the task of a road trip were ill-founded. Visibility out the front was excellent, as were the car’s headlights (something we couldn’t say about the McLaren 650S). The seats were comfortable, and even though the infotainment system was somewhat primitive compared to the one in the California T, its navigation function turned out to be extremely competent.

Easier to live with than you think

Ferrari’s modus operandi, again in homage to its Formula 1 activities, is to cover the steering wheel in all manner of buttons and controls. These are relatively quick to adapt to, but I found the controls I wanted more often were the ones that would change the multifunction displays on either side of the massive central rev counter. These are found either side of the dash, below the driver’s air vents, and were still well-placed to reach without effort (or, after some acclimation, though).

Cargo capacity was more than adequate for a mid-engined supercar: the frunk will accommodate a TSA-approved carry-on bag with room to spare, and there’s space behind the seats to stash more luggage. The 488 even has two USB ports, although these only seemed to provide power to my phone; neither would let me stream audio. (Happily, Bluetooth came to the rescue.)

The car wasn’t even terribly thirsty, considering we’re talking about a 670hp machine. We drove 268 miles, with the low-fuel light blinking into life a couple of miles before we reached Ferrari HQ. Even then, the 488 still estimated it had another 31 miles left in it. That’s almost as good as the EPA combined figure of 18mpg, and a new record for me driving a supercar. And while running a Ferrari is never going to be exactly cheap, you do now get seven years’ free servicing and maintenance, meaning your main running costs will be gas, tires, and insurance.

Finally, we’ll consider the 488 in relation to its two closest rivals, the Huracán and 650S. The Lamborghini is the easiest of the three to get in and drive, and its angular body has the most extreme styling—after all, Batman chose one. That car also had the best infotainment system (a benefit of being part of the Volkswagen Group stable) and also the best sound, courtesy of the naturally aspirated V10. The McLaren can boast that fantastic interconnected suspension system, which imbues the car with the most remarkable ride. It also has the most divine steering wheel, with a thin rim that feels completely perfect in your hands. But it suffers from an irritating infotainment system and some confusing-to-operate controls. (The happiest medium between Ferrari and Lamborghini’s “throw all the buttons on it” and Mclaren’s “no buttons at all” philosophies can be found on the Audi R8’s wheel.)

Is any one of these three supercars objectively better than the others? Perhaps if you compare the statistics or take all three to a track and try for the fastest lap time. But for the relatively subjective nature of our testing, I think the comparison probably boils down to which one you think looks (or sounds) the best. One thing is for sure: the 488 GTB is a hell of a car.

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